How Do I Get Out of the Way?

p7OMedEI was standing in front of my classroom yesterday and I had a professional existential crisis.

My students had walked into their first exam of the semester in various states of tension, resignation and hope, and a couple of them seemed uncomfortable to the point of rudeness – sticking their legs out into the aisle and not moving them as I approached, until I asked them to; not meeting my eye and limply taking the papers from my hand; saying “More paper” without saying “…please.”

It was irritating, and ego-bruising. I often tell myself, “I don’t care how they FEEL about me; I care about how they BEHAVE.” And it’s true that, for their own sake, they need to learn how to treat everyone, even people they don’t care for – their teachers, their bosses, their colleagues, their classmates – with politeness and respect. I have developed a classroom demeanour that insists upon basic manners, and most students, sometimes after testing a bit, comply. But then there are always a few who, for whatever reason – they hate their mothers; they hate school; something I’ve said has triggered them – continue to test the boundaries, and force me to engage in a delicate dance: When to respond? When to ignore? What crosses the line from carelessness to rudeness? What will help, and what will make things worse?

And, fundamentally, as much as I try to detach from taking things personally: when do their feelings about me have a direct detrimental effect on their learning?

This semester, I am teaching two small remedial Intro to College English classes, with a total of 32 students. As I stood behind my desk, slowly grading papers as 17 of them wrote their exam, I lifted my head and gazed out at them. I paused for a moment, reflecting. Then I opened up my class lists for both classes, and did a quick calculation, based on their names and what I could remember of the personal information they gave me early in the term:

Of my 32 students, 7 would probably be classified as being of white European descent. The others can be more or less equally divided between, in general terms, Middle Eastern/North African, East or Southeast Asian, South Asian, and African Canadian; a couple are of South American heritage.

This is to say: approximately 80% of my students are visibly culturally different from me.

Here’s the greater problem: almost 100% of the approximately 70 English teachers at our college would be culturally identified as Caucasian. Some other departments in the college are a little more diverse, but when I say “a little,” I mean, like, seriously, “a little.” This diversity mostly consists of East and South Asian and Middle Eastern teachers. We have very few black teachers at our college, despite the fact that we have many, many black students. These kids spend all day, every day, looking at people whose reality is different from theirs in fundamental ways, people whom they may (justifiably) believe couldn’t possibly understand them. A whole lot of white people.

Does this mean I have nothing to teach these kids? No. Does it mean that a black kid has license to be rude? No, and most of my black students never, ever are. However: when I look at any young person of colour who is sitting in my classroom with an expression of hostility on his face, my first response may be one of fatigue and irritation, but I need to quickly move to a new response. I don’t know why he’s feeling hostile. It may very well be because of something I’ve actually done. On the other hand, I have no idea what other kinds of garbage he’s had to experience today, or all his life, and maybe I’ve triggered his hostility in ways that neither of us really understand, or maybe his hostility has nothing to do with me; after all, he’s usually pretty engaged, he always does his homework, he attends every class. Maybe he just had a totally crap day today and he’s damned if he’s going to pretend to be compliant and cheerful for yet another middle-aged white lady.

So what’s a middle-aged white lady to do?

Well, my existential crisis consisted of this realization: these kids do not need more white teachers.

I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m white, obviously. But as I was gazing out at them, I was reminded of an interview I heard a little while ago with the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, in which he discussed the abysmal state of diversity in entertainment. The interview is here – I recommend it; I no longer watch the Daily Show but I found Noah charming and his views enlightening.

In essence, his story is that, when the Daily Show was trying to hire black correspondents, they came up empty – the callout brought in no applications from suitable candidates. Then he ran into some friends – comedians – who said, “If you want some black people you’ll let us know, right?” And he said, “But didn’t you send a tape? Didn’t your agents contact you?” And they replied, “Trevor, we don’t have agents. Do you know what it takes for a black comedian to get an agent?” And so he realized that going through the regular channels was just not going to work; that if you want diversity, you have to actively go out and recruit diversity, not wait for it to come to you through the channels that have stifled diversity until now.

The argument in college department hiring committees is the same: we hired from the people who came. The problem is not going to be solved on that level.

What do we need? We need kids of colour to become educators. How do we do that? I don’t know, but I feel like this has got to become part of the agenda. This is not just about helping a kid of colour who wants to be a teacher – it’s about helping the kids whom that kid will teach.

So what can we, as the teachers of right now, do to help that happen? Or maybe: how do we get out of the way?

Image by Dez Pain

 

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8 responses

  1. Very insightful post. I’ve seen this issue in many places. Obviously more effort needs to be made to get a diverse set of students into college and into the fields that are so lacking. This large notion, is at the core, what so many of the laws we used to have were attempting to promote. I won’t get into politics here but I think there is not only a roll for individuals and organizations/corporations and unions but also a role for Government in this. Hopefully resources can be put behind efforts to enhance access and opportunities for all people.

    • MFearing: thank you. I’m not saying anything new, obviously, but it struck home yesterday in a way it hasn’t before. One of the fantastic things about the college where I work is that our student population is so terrifically diverse. The teaching population: not so much. It’s troubling.

  2. As a member of a visible minority and a teacher, I ALWAYS track the number of staff who are visible minorities. Sadly, the percentages have not changed in the last two decades, while the percentage of non-Caucasian students has increased significantly. Right now, I’d say 75-80% of my students are non-Caucasian and about 5% of teachers are visible minorities. The situation is even worse at the administrative level with principals and superintendants.
    I’m not pulling a Callwood, but that can’t be right.

    • I agree – it’s untenable. It obviously requires some kind of intervention, as the traditional ways of filling the teachers’ colleges and hiring at schools, colleges and universities are not working to solve this problem. What could that intervention be?

  3. I have been called a racist by students at least 3 times in my career. Hostility was directed at me because I called kids out on their crappy attitude, rude behavior, or bullying. For that, I was labeled a racist. The parents in response were always very supportive of me. Yet, I have never really gotten over that feeling of being labeled something like that. When you try to make a classroom an empathetic place for kids to grow and share, there is no place for bigotry. So what goes through a kid’s head that they latch on to that term and throw it at you? Why did they go the victim route rather than own up to their poor behavior? What does a student of color feel everyday when the people they look to for guidance don’t look anything like them?

    • Kathleen: I can imagine how that would stay with you. Setting clear expectations, enforcing consequences, and maintaining perspective on ourselves and our possible biases can be very difficult things to balance, and when someone hurls an accusation, of course – if we are good people – we take it personally while trying to evaluate it rationally. I would never claim to know why a student cries “racism” when racism is not the issue – all I know is, what I suffer in the face of that accusation is so much less than the real racism that the student suffers all the time and that leads to such accusations. It doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, but it does provide a context that I could stand to learn about.

  4. Reblogged this on HAVE FUN LEARN ENGLISH and commented:
    Yeah, in everything, including the United Nations, we need more accessibility, more diversity, more plurality. And you are right. Unless a system, a group, a nation, or a building, goes out of its way to get more diversity, it won’t. I live in Canada, and we have a Toronto company that is called stopgap.ca that makes ramps. If you call that company, and tell them the measurement of your step that is stopping persons in wheelchairs and persons who don’t like stairs, they will build it. So some stores that get it, call the company, and get the ramps built. Those ores go out of their way to try and make their stores accessible and as a result survive on street. The stores that are inaccessible to persons in wheelchair, I find are often lacking other people with disabilities who boycott out of sympathy. 15% of the globe is disabled, so unless a store, goes out of their way, using whatever means necessary that they can get, to clear the road, and show a warm welcome, then all the welcome signs are nothing.

    Sorry to be off topic. I know that your writing was about the perennial problem you all have with race. But abstractly, I have noticed that with any people, unless they REALLY feel wanted, REALLY feel welcome, they are not going to show up unless they are real cultural leaders such as Jacky Robinson, or Mohammed Ali, or Tiger Woods. Those guys show up because they are leaders.

    You need more diversity in the States.
    Bridges, not walls.

    I have American friends. I like the United States because Americans will fly in and do with confidence what we Canadians are hesitant to try. We are not all that confident so Neil Young and Celine Dion went to the USA.

    In my profession, ESL teaching, racism is so inherent in the profession that currently there is a commercial for grammarly.com on the net. Guess what colour the main star of the video is? the star is saying how Grammarly helps her with her grammar so that she an pass the university. She was chosen because there is simply not enough diversity in English teaching itself. She was chosen because of the persistent lies and myths that stop more diversity from happening. Because the ideal teacher of English as a Second language is a blonde blue eyed fashion model looking like a young model. It is what it is, but when is it going to change? I thought that young people could see that this is 2016. But these racist lies and racist myths are difficult to defeat.

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